LOS ANGELES -- Whatever happens over the remainder of this challenging stretch will not guarantee anything for the Braves. But they would like to take advantage of this opportunity to prove they do match up with the game’s best.
Coming off a big series win against the Giants, the Braves traveled west and suffered a 5-3 loss to the Dodgers on Monday night at Dodger Stadium. Their potent lineup was silenced through the first five innings and Drew Smyly proved why he might not be the best option against some of baseball’s most powerful offenses.
“It wasn’t a great outing for him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “But we hung in there, and gave ourselves a chance to win, which is a good thing. But it’s just hard to come back when you get down that far.”
Smyly surrendered a season-high four homers through the first three innings and the Atlanta offense was subdued until Jorge Soler and Freddie Freeman hit back-to-back homers in the sixth off Julio Urías, who carried a perfect game into the fifth.
Adam Duvall added another solo shot in the seventh. But the five runs Smyly allowed before the fourth were too much to overcome for the Braves, who have lost four of six and have seen their National League East lead over the Phillies drop to 3 1/2 games.
“In my mind, the Dodgers M.O. from past years is, they make pitchers work,” Smyly said. “They don't chase. They make you be in the strike zone. So, I wanted to come out and attack. I guess their game plan was swing early, because that's what they were doing.”
If the Braves manage to win the final two games of this series, they would split an eight-game stretch that has pitted them against the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers. But if they were to lose the last two, they’ll have squandered a chance to prove they can indeed hang with the game’s best teams.
With that being said, the Braves will get a better feel for how they match up against the Dodgers when Charlie Morton opposes Walker Buehler on Tuesday and Max Fried faces Max Scherzer in Wednesday’s series finale. Morton and Fried would be in Atlanta’s postseason rotation. But there’s little reason to think Smyly would be included.
“We brought the go-ahead run to the plate tonight,” Snitker said. “I’ll be honest, in the third inning, I was wondering how we were going to piece this thing together and have enough guys for tomorrow. And then all of the sudden, the bullpen came in and did a great job.”
Smyly had posted a 3.45 ERA over his past 12 starts coming into this one and had won 11 of those games. His success was a product of staying out of the heart of the strike zone, like he had done far too often while allowing 13 homers through his first eight starts of the season. He surrendered five homers over an 11-start stretch from June 13-Aug.15 and then allowed three homers against the Orioles on Aug. 21.
Unfortunately for Smyly, the struggles in Baltimore followed him across the country. The veteran lefty allowed a first-inning homer to Max Muncy and a two-out homer in the second to Will Smith. Both pitches were middle-middle fastballs clocked at 91 mph.
Mookie Betts’ solo homer in third came against a fastball that was barely higher than middle-middle. Corey Seager’s two-run homer in the third was just an elevated cutter the Dodgers shortstop was able to drive the other way.
“It just seemed like every time I threw a fastball, they were ready for it and didn't miss,” Smyly said. “I don’t think I even had a foul ball on a fastball, which is kind of crazy. Then every other offspeed pitch, they were either missing or fouling off or hitting with weak contact. I don’t know. I need to watch some video. Those homers are definitely middle. But it seemed to me, it didn’t matter where I threw the fastball, they were going to get hits against it. So, maybe I was tipping.”
Smyly allowed four homers for just the second time in his career and has now allowed homers to seven of the past 44 batters faced. If this trend continues, the Braves will need to evaluate replacing him in the rotation with Touki Toussaint or possibly Kyle Wright, who has had some recent success with Triple-A Gwinnett.
When the Braves gave Smyly a one-year, $11 million deal this past winter, they were encouraged by the 93.8 mph average velocity he produced with his fastball last year. He did so while totaling 26 1/3 innings and lasting as many as five innings in two of the five starts he made for the Giants.
Now as Smyly approaches the 120-inning mark of this season, his velocity is an issue. His fastball sat above 92 mph through July 17. But it has averaged less than 91 mph in three of his past four starts, including Monday night when he averaged 90.9 mph with his four-seamer.
“It may be that he had a limited year last year,” Snitker said. “Now, [the season] is getting extended and maybe that has something to do with it.”